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Hunting the Art in Things Picasso

Soup? Art? The Dresser is thinking about Lily Tomlin's comedic play on Andy Warhol's cans of Campbell soup. When does what is ordinary cross the line and become art? On April 29, 2010, the Dresser saw Kate Moira Ryan's Bass for Picasso and on May 1, 2010, she saw the exhibition of Picasso's artworks that were selected from the holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Both shows had points of artistic engagement but neither achieves artistic perfection.


BassPicasso272_CRoseggTable.jpgBass for Picasso, which runs at New York City's Theatre Row's Kirk Theatre until May 23, highlights a dinner party given by a food critic. The focus of the meal is a whole fish prepared according to a recipe by Alice B. Toklas, the woman who for most of Gertrude Stein's adult life prepared the majority of the great Modernist's meals. The guests and chef in Ryan's play are all Lesbian or gay and they are all in crisis over the partners they have or once had.

Domesticity, not the high life of excess, stays front and center with the visible players. The Dresser says visible because there are sexually precocious children of the food critic Francesca (played by Anita Hollander) and her partner Pilar (Felice Neals) (the children play upstairs out of sight with things like nipple clamps) and the drug-addicted partner of a doctor named Joe. Joe and his partner are supposed to be present at the dinner party, but only Joe makes it to the table.

Central to the story are the friends Kev (Terry Small) and Bricka (Mary Theresa Archbold) who are the first guests to arrive. Kev who is a playwright has a drinking problem. Bricka, as a new widow with a small child, has "in-law" problems. The in-laws want custody of the child their deceased daughter bore. Kev was once Joe's partner and the audience learns slowly that Kev has not come to closure with Joe. Bricka's partner had had an affair with Pilar. Once Bricka realizes who Pilar is, Bricka wants to cause trouble between Pilar and Francesca by seducing Pilar. To further complicate the story, Kev and Bricka seem to be sexually attracted to each other.


Out of this soup of characters and situations, what makes this dark comedy worth digesting and whose story is this? The Dresser was impressed with the flinty light that emanated from Anita Hollander. BassPicasso306_CRoseggLeg.jpgShe plays the food critic who has only one leg to stand on. The other leg, which she removes to menace her unfaithful partner Pilar, is artificial. Yes, Anita Hollander is an amputee who does not hold back. Despite the title that links the food critic and her partner who is an art detective (she authenticates artworks), the story does not belong to them. By the end of the play, the Dresser realized that this is the story of Kev, Bricka, and Joe. They are not only linked by past relationships but also by the play Kev has written at their expense. Did Kate Moira Ryan mean to keep this a secret or did the playwright lose control of her characters?

There are plenty of whacky lines and situations to make Bass for Picasso work better than it does, but only if the director (who in this production is Ike Schambeian, the artistic director of Theater Breaking Through Barriers) had made it possible for these able actors to rise to the campiest kinds of behavior. Felice Neals as Pilar gets the closest to this kind of acting style and the Dresser could imagine her walking out of Picasso's portrait of a man with a lollipop, one of the more striking pieces in the Met's current Picasso exhibition. man with lolipop web.jpg



One perverse thought the Dresser had after going through the five rooms of Picassos at the Met was that playwright Kate Moira Ryan and director Ike Schambeian might have benefited from seeing this Picasso exhibit which included "The Blind Man's Meal" (a well known work from Picasso's Blue Period), an illustrated get-well letter from Picasso to Surrealist Jean Cocteau, and a large brass arm that might have been used as an oversized door knocker. However, a visitor to this exhibition also has to understand that the Met has many drawings that don't add up to more than idle doodles from the master who at the end of his life produced multiple drawings every day. Ok, give the Dresser a black eye, but she believes that even Picasso could not mass produce art.

Talking about perversion, Ryan made sure to emphasize what Picasso said to Alice Toklas after she presented her highly decorated cooked fish to him. After exclaiming how beautiful the fish looked, he said that she should have presented the decorated bass to Matisse and not him. In other words, her artful fish spoke more to Matisse's style than to Picasso's. With the title Bass for Picasso and the emphasis on a misdirected presentation to the wrong artist, the Dresser wonders what playwright Ryan meant to say. Was it that the guests weren't worthy of the meal? This seems too simplistic. Was it that the guests didn't recognize what was artful? For example, Kev incorporates the mishaps of Joe and Bricka into his play, much to their horror. Of course this begs the question about what is fair game in the attempt to create art and how do events from every day life and its tragedies move to a higher plane of reality?

So again what is the difference between what is ordinary (soup) versus something that transcends (art)? The Dresser thinks art is all about how things are put together and what sense can be made of the juxtapositions.

Barbara Crooker in her poem "Vol de Nuit/ Night Flight" explores how ordinary things can be transformed.


Now, isn't that more elegant than
taking the Red-Eye?
And don't you love it when the flight attendant
(Remember when she used to be a stewardess?
When everything matched her uniform,
even her luggage, and her makeup was heavy
and impeccable?) hands out pillows, blankets
soft as babies' dreams, eye masks,
ear plugs--everything Mother would do
but tuck you in and read you a story.
Or maybe she does--think of the fable
she recites at the beginning of the flight.
Or did you think it was true, that oxygen
miraculously drops from above,if the cabin
pressure fails? That your seat cushion becomes
a life preserver if you fall into the black night
of the North Atlantic? That emergency lights
will twinkle and glow, illuminate your path
to the exit chute, little constellations of hope?
Never mind. Relax into your backrest
of many positions. Enjoy the multi-course
many-sectioned meal brought to you hot,
without a kitchen in sight. Hear the tinkle
of the cart as she progresses down the aisle,
those cunning little bottles. Put on your headset,
find the channel with jazz or blues, unscrew
the metal top, sip your red, and voilà,
you're in Paris already, hours ahead of time.
So the pâté and camembert come in tin foil,
and the roll's hard as an iceberg. Thousands
of miles are rushing under your feet
beneath these silver wings. Soon,
you'll be racing the dawn, as morning throws
her rosy covers over the sky. Briôches,
café au lait, croissants and café noir will roll
down the aisles. You'll begin your long descent
from the land of the clouds. Things
may have shifted overhead. Everyone is speaking
in tongues, and none of them are yours.
You must go to le contrôle de passeports,
and you will need to declare: business
or pleasure. Someone is meeting you
at the gate; he's carrying a baguette
and a single red rose, knows the minute
your plane touches the tarmac.
Now you have reclaimed your luggage,
passed through customs, and entered
the terminal, where the rest
of your life is waiting.

by Barbara Crooker
from Line Dance

Copyright © 2008 Barbara Crooker

First two photos by Carol Rosegg from Bass for Picasso

Photo #1: (l-r): Mary Theresa Archbold as Bricka, Terry Small as Kev,
Nicholas Viselli as Joe, Felice Neals as Pilar, and Anita Hollander as

Photo #2: Anita Hollander (left) as Francesca and Felice Neals (right) as Pilar


Comments (1)

Merrill Leffler:

I've been rereading a number of The Dresser's postings and I'm ashamed I haven't written before not only to thank you but to say how marvelous it is what you've been doing over this time. I have no reason to flatter -- you've brought such a fine critical intelligence and in a writing style that keeps one (me) moving from one sentence to another. Ann and I haven't gone to all that much in D.C. this year, so The Dressing has been a vicarious way of doing that. A bit of hyperbole maybe but not all that much.

We did get to the Joe Louis opera -- I've seen numbers of Leon Major's productions, all of which have been strikingly distinctive. The voicies espeically of Carmon Balthrop and Adrienne Webster, as you say, were compelling -- Webster had terrific dramatic presence. I loved the staging -- the modern Greek chorus, the movement with chairs, the masks, the lighting, Kirby Malone and his partner's projections. The structure of the storytelling might have been more adventurous -- I felt my attention flag at times, which could easily have been me and not the libretto. I only read the Washington Post review later on, not wanting to be prejudiced, and the criticism had some validity, though in truth I was caught up in the production. I'm not a great fan of so-called biopics and so when I say it might have been more adventurous, something different than the linear storytelling.

Then your observations about the Terra Cotta warriors, the differences between seeing them in Xian and at the National Geographic -- first rate. When I first read your post on Split This Rock, your comment about Holly Bass didn't register with me -- I didn't know her work and so it passed over. But on Friday night, a bunch of us were at the Enoch Pratt for a reading for Kim's Full Moon -- Holly read and did her "In This District," which I loved.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 8, 2010 9:26 PM.

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